The Alabama that John Lewis was born into in 1940 was a one-party authoritarian state. Forty years before Lewis was born, the white elite of Alabama, panicked by a populist revolt of white and Black workers, shut Black men out of politics in a campaign of terror, fraud, murder, and, finally, disenfranchisement.
“We had to do it. Unfortunately, I say it was a necessity. We could not help ourselves,” Alabama Governor William C. Oates confessed. In 1901, the Montgomery Advertiser announced that with the new state constitution, “the putrid sore of negro suffrage is severed from the body of the commonwealth.” Such wholesale purges of Black Americans from the polity unfolded throughout the South, where the Democratic Party established a system of implacable white supremacy.
Most of America’s Black population, when Lewis was born, lived in a white republic, where they were driven into poverty, disenfranchised, and denied basic civil and political rights through violence, custom, and law. More than one-third of Alabama’s population when Lewis was born was denied the right to vote.
“As a child, I was restless to escape the boundaries that had been set for me,” Lewis wrote in his 2012 memoir, Across That Bridge. “As a disenfranchised citizen who yearned for change, as a child born on the dark side of the American dream, I heard the whispers of the spirit calling me to wrestle with the soul of a nation.” Lewis wanted to be a preacher; as the historian David Halberstam wrote in his book The Children, as a kid Lewis would practice by preaching to chickens. “Lewis did chicken births, chicken weddings, chicken baptisms, and chicken funerals; they were in the truest sense his flock.”